One day in 1919, filmmaker/actor Benjamin Christensen stumbled upon a copy of “Malleus Maleficarum” in a bookstore in Berlin. From that moment on he did nothing for two years but obsess over witchcraft. He wanted to make an original film. Not an adaptation. “In principal [sic] I am against these adaptations… I seek to find the way forward to original films.”
At the time, Christensen was one of the leading directors in his country of Sweden. After “Haxan,” he would become one of the leading directors in the world. This wasn’t his only masterpiece. During his brief dance with success, he of course, went to Hollywood and made pictures for Warner Brothers then Universal, making films with Lon Chaney and Norma Sherer. Though his films from this period now are considered long lost treasures (the ones that lasted), at the time they were considered flops. So by the end of the 1920’s Christensen moved back to Sweden, where he would only make one more film for the rest of his 79 years. Now, he is compared to his peers on equal footing. Peers like the great Dreyer. Today in scholarly circles he has been rediscovered as one of the lost masters and is seen to have been a huge influence on style and form. Remember, this documentary came out in the same year as Robert J. Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North,” which is often hailed as the birth of the modern documentary, whereas “Haxan” is often left out of the conversation entirely.
The film is broken up into four parts. Granted, some of this is quite boring. The first two parts are made up of stills primarily and title cards explaining the history of witchcraft. Again this was released in 1922, so obviously if it came out today these parts would more or less contain interviews with professors and such. Either way the source material as presented is fascinating… but part 3 is where some of the most haunting and disturbing pieces of silent cinema exist.
In these parts Christensen reenacts the myths. Witches running around naked, Satan (played by the director) appears, witches on brooms – the whole nine yards. This is all beyond breathtaking. Part three is set entirely in the middle ages and essentially reenacts a woman’s venture into witchcraft, from casting spells, flying around on brooms with other witches and interacting with the devil, to being found out and persecuted by the church. To my mind, Christensen would have been better off to have made this whole section into a feature length product, and lost the documentary edge, but it is what it is. The set pieces and costumes are way ahead of their time and certainly have had a profound influence on world culture when it comes to all things Satanic.
When it was released, “Haxan” was a huge hit in Denmark and Sweden but was banned in the U.S. and censored in other countries because of the nudity, torture and sexual perversion. What I haven’t mentioned is that in the sixties some pot smoking hippies got together and played around with a cut of the film and re-released it under the title “Witchcraft Through The Ages,” narrated by William Burroughs, and scored with jazz music. The original is far superior, as the jazz is completely out of place and Burroughs is casually describing what he’s seeing. I didn’t get the point, but thankfully this is not the version that Criterion holds anyway.